Thursday, September 24, 2015

Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles – A New Adaptation by Luis Alfaro

Justin Huen, Sabina Zuniga Varela

By Joe Straw

“Thy words be gentle:  but I fear me yet
Lest even now there creep some wickedness
Deep within thee.” – Creon – Euripides’s Medea

“Oh, I have tried so many thoughts of murder to my turn,
I know not which best likes me.  Shall I burn
Their house with fire?  Or stealing past unseen
To Jason’s bed – I have a blade made keen
For that-stab, breast to breast, that wedded pair?...

I love the old way best, the simple way
Of poison, where we too are strong as men.” – Medea - Euripides’s Medea

Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles, a new adaptation by Luis Alfaro and directed by Jessica Kubzansky, is being performed through October 3, 2015 at the picturesque Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa.  The Theatre @ Boston Court marvelously produces this show. 

Mojada is a perfect show for this venue given the 44,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities that inhabit the museum.  The open-air amphitheater (with cushions for seating) is how one would expect to see a Greek play and, in an imagined vision, of how the Greeks saw Euripides’s Medea, when first produced in 431 BCE in Athens, Greece.

Luis Alfaro’s Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles stands alone in its exquisite beauty. Alfaro’s adaptation is remarkable in the manner of its flow and ebb; the method in which exhausted souls speak a profound truth, of survival, of seeking a better life, and then pushing that life to the edge of a hideous precipice.  In short, Alfaro’s adaptation is a different Medea as well as one that stands uniquely on its own merits. 

This is a tragic story of the end of a relationship.  

Tita (VIVIS) slaps the leaves, to the sounds of the blended noises, the false gossipy whispers, which are the backdrop rumblings and clatters of living souls surviving in Boyle Heights.  And in her indigenous language, Tita places a protective shield to the corners of their home against those forces known and unknown.  

Living in Boyle Heights is almost a fantasy for this family and one that defies comprehension. Dreamlike, the house floats in out of nowhere, carried on spirit wheels, mightily pushed by the indigenous people who anchor it to the terra firma while various plants propagate on the porch. 

And Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) methodically rolls her sewing machine to her special place, just off the porch, and focuses her sights on the right color of thread.  

One more thing, Medea is not moving far from home.

“Hason’s dream was to come here.” – Medea

It is a dream of bitterest contradictions, of her husband, Hason (Justin Huen), who manages to find work late at night, most nights, and comes home infrequently.  When he does come home, he drinks beer, spits on the ground in polite company, and kicks the soccer ball down the street for his son, Acan (Quinn Marquez), to chase. It is how all Americans behave, he tells himself, in a selfish act of assimilation.

But, despite the grumblings, life appears happy, in this home, a family, complete with the ever present and annoying servant, Tita, someone who gives a humorous respite to the daily grind of surviving in Boyle Heights, doing the dishes and bringing them beer.  

Medea, the artist, an independent contractor, receives $8.00 for each item she sews that is then sold for $120.00 at Bloomindales.  Even with both working, there’s not enough to go around and adequately support the family.

Not while Hason is out and about most nights.  

That aside, on this day, Hason suggests they go for a family outing to the Santa Monica Pier.  Medea says there’s too much work, gets sick and goes inside.

“Hason did not come home last night.” – Tita

Leave it to Tita and her outspoken thoughts to stir up trouble between Medea and Hason.

Moving away, Tita grabs the machete, an augury, foreshadowing events to be played out, but for now she trims the banana plant.  

A short while later, Josefina (Zilah Mendoza) seductively blows into this family like an unwanted boa – offering more than just pan dulce – in exchange for confabulation, juicy gossip, and a new dress.

“I know Hanson…Is he a good lover?” – Josie

Josefina is very provocative and Medea is curious about the things Hason tells other women on the street. But Josefina says she has a husband, he works in the field in Oregon, and she longs for her own prodigy.

Initially, Medea sees Josefina, with her fine figure, as a threat to her family.  That threat is relieved when Josefina appeals to Medea’s sewing nature to make her a new dress so that a newly Americanized “Josie” can be reintroduce to her husband, enticing him into bed, and becoming pregnant herself.

“Tita is a curandera, she can help.” – Medea

Josie steps onto a box in the middle of the yard to be measured. And while this is happening, Tita takes three leaves and medicinally places them over the various erogenous zones of her body.   

Later, and in the quiet moments, Medea silently broods about the events of the day and waits for Hason to come home.  She takes out a blanket and entices Hason to make love with her in the front yard. Hason, confused, suddenly become agreeable until Medea suddenly stops and says she can’t.

Hason understands this thing between them.

“Armida gave me another promotion.  I work in the office with her.” – Hason

Medea is slightly curious about the developing relationship between them but Hason tells her that she should be grateful since Armida (Marlene Forte) is letting them stay in their house for free.  

It’s a grand place considering where they came from four years earlier.

L - R Justin Huen, Quinn Marquez, Sabina Zuniga Varela, VIVIS

And so we travel to their journey four years earlier, as Tita recounts fleeing Michoacán to Boyle Heights in the back of a truck, where at times they were unable to breath.  The journey was difficult and at one point the truck was held up at gunpoint.

And while Hason had a gun pointed to his head, Medea and another young woman were taken off the truck and raped.  

The Getty Villa is the perfect place to see this play and, aside from the heat on this particular night, the night was as enjoyable as any night of theatre I can remember.

That said, Alfaro’s adaptation is night to Euripides’s day and comparisons must be made. And, I have some thoughts, slight tidbits, off the cuff comments about the play, the comparisons, and the actors.

Alfaro’s work is beautiful and there are interesting distinctions between his work and Euripides’ play. For example, in Euripides’ Medea, Medea is caught in the circumstances of being a woman, a sorceress at that, who is cast aside and then projected as being evil. Her dialogue suggests such and the manner in which she conducts herself is not becoming of someone who has all of her wits about her. It is a role that justifies a stronger physical Medea.

Alfaro’s Medea is unable to leave the house, suffering from a type of agoraphobia. She is timid, not forceful, and we are led to believe that this might be because of the rape when in fact it is something deeper.  There is a stronger inner dialogue moving in this Medea trying to make sense of all that is happening around her. 

In Alfaro’s version, the rape scene works against the strength of both Medea and Hason.  Certainly one is led to believe that Medea is now extremely fragile and terrified due to the rape and Hason is emasculated from having to let an armed bandits take his wife.  

And it may have been Alfaro’s intention to not make the characters resilient as they are in Euripides’s Medea where Medea is forcefully strong in her ways and Jason (adventurous, strong, and of the Argonauts fame) is strong in his manner, thus making for an ending that is grander in amplitude.    

Instead, since both characters are fragile, the events of the dramatic ending are lessened; the tragedy may not be as great and they are the victims once again by the manner of their position and circumstances.

In Alfaro’s Mojada, we do not see Medea thinking out loud on stage, calling for desperate measures and action as we do in Euripides’ Medea.  The moments in Mojada are nuanced and profound in subtle ways.

Medea is wronged repeatedly and one would like to see the dramatic moments accumulate in the character, emotional and physically into a frenzied state of rage. The inner dialogue is stronger, but that needs a physical accompaniment especially for the ending because Medea must get some satisfaction for what she has done, in whatever form it takes, but there was little in the way of a physical action, before the leaves, and before the final curtain. 

Nevertheless, it was a grand night for director Jessica Kubzansky’s presentation that manages to capture the dramatic essence of Medea guiding the characters through their miserable indignities to capture a truth. The loudest audible gasp of the night did not come from the brutal scenes but from a word, simply spoken, that collapses a home into a crumbling mass that was once a family. And that is a true testament to Kubzansky’s work.  

VIVIS as Tita give us a grand performance as the non-obsequious servant/mother/nurse to Medea.  Her characterization is flawless and her humor is exquisite.

Justin Huen plays Hason and is probably one of the hardest working actor in Los Angeles (everywhere I go, there he is). That said, Huen’s Hason is not different from the other roles I’ve seen him in. They are well-performed variations of the same character.  This characterization is weakened by the play’s tragic events of four years ago and Huen needs to find ways to give the character strength.  More can be added to the character without taking away from this fine performance.

Sabina Zuniga Varela plays Medea, a mother and homemaker, who is hesitant to stray too far from her house.   In this version, Medea hides her mystery well – coming out to show her true colors at the end of the play.  Medea is concerned about her husband’s philandering ways but doesn’t do much to keep him. Only when the marriage is over does she step into opprobrious actions that are beyond reason. Varela’s Medea has her faculties about herself.  We do not see the feverish agitation in her behavior from those events leading to the complete disillusion of their union. And for some reason, I think we need that.

Quinn Marques does a fine comic turn as Acan, Medea’s and Hanson’s son.

Zilah Mendoza is perfect as Josefina, the pan dulce lady, who carefully watches her Boyle Heights neighbors including the men with wandering eyes who visit her stand.  Despite that, she says she only has eyes for her husband.  Not satisfied with her shibboleth, the indigenous dress of her native land, she enlists Medea to make her a new dress, one that will keep her husband home and get her pregnant. Unfortunately, she gets mixed up with the wrong people and when she finally finds out who Medea is she should run, absquatulate into the nether region of Boyle Heights, away rather than casually walk away as she did.  Still, it was a very impressive performance.  

L - R Marlene Forte, VIVIS

Marlene Forte brings the right amount of vivaciousness to the character Armida.  She lives a secret, a conflict that tears her apart in the telling of the secret.  And as she marches upstage in the beautiful dress Medea has made for her we should see an inkling of things that come. Forte gives a subtle yet marvelous performance.

Other member of the cast that I did not see perform the night I was there were; Anthony Gonzalez (Acan), Denise Blasor (Tita/Armida understudy), Presciliana Esparolini (Medea/Josefina understudy) and Adrian Gonzalez (Hason understudy).

The fine people who make up the marvelous crew are as follows:

Jaclyn Kalkhurst – Stage Manager
Alyssa Escalante – Assistant Stage Manager
Efren Delgadillo, Jr. – Scenic Designer/Technical Director
Raquel Barreto – Costume Design
Ben Zamora – Lighting Design
Bruno Louchouarn – Sound Design
Christopher Scott Murillo – Properties Design
Cheryl Rizzo - Production Manager
Cat Sowa - Assistant Production Manager
Rachel Clinkscales - Assistant Costume Designer
Courtney Buchan - Assistant Director
Ellen L. Sandor - Wardrobe
Bobby Gutierrez - Running Crew
The members of The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater Staff make everyone feel at home.  Some of the names mentioned in the program are as follows:

Laurel Kishi – Performing Arts Manager
Ralph Flores – Project Specialist
Anna Woo – Project Coordinator
Mary Louise Hart – Dramaturge
Shelby Brown – Education Specialist
Adrienne Wohleen, Paradigm Shift Worldwide – Technical Coordinator
Steph Dirden, Heather Alvear, Michael Easley, and Bill King – Technical Production
Visitor Services Department – House Management
Diana Sanchez Martinez – Public Programs Intern

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who wants to have the best time of their life. 

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